Sad to Say – But There Is No Silver Bullet When Learning French

The genesis for our trip to mostly France was so I could experience French Immersion. We would live with my teacher’s family and I would have 15 hours per week of customized French lessons. I tried to find a teacher or a combination of two teachers so I could do this for two weeks. Well, it seems and my experience confirms it, that one must book these sorts of experiences well in advance. I was so very lucky to get any spot at all, and mine was actually 1 day shorter than the standard week.

 Getting Ready For School

We left Laroque and traveled about 3 hours to Lot-et-Garonne. We arrived late Sunday afternoon. Veronique and Michel had graciously let us keep all our luggage in their garage. This allowed us to walk to Cadillac, explore the town, visit the chateau and walk back. We then headed to Lot to meet Pierre and his family.

Castle of the Dukes of Epernon
I thought this was too cool to not include in the photos – It’s the top part of a fireplace mantle
Can’t wait to visit them again! We will be back.

We arrived just after Isabelle, Pierre’s wife had left for a week long school field trip to the south of Spain. Isabel teaches French in the local elementary school. I know all of you are thinking to yourselves, “Why do they need a French teacher in France, don’t they already speak French?”. Okay, didn’t every single one of you take English until you graduated….nuff said.

Pierre’s home is in Monteton, not in the town center, it’s a little over a mile from the church, restaurant, auberge/chateau hotel, and small grouping of homes that make up “downtown” Monteton. Pierre welcomed us and showed us our room. He had a meal ready for us if we were hungry but we had picked up a sandwich and a salad to split at the Paul quick stop on the highway. He introduced us to his sons, Loeiz and Vivien. The kids bolted after the introduction. Pierre asked us if we wanted to do anything or if we were tired.

We weren’t tired and the countryside looked beautiful. The three of us went for a walk with the dogs, (Elouk “el-luke”, the Husky and Joy “Joey” , the Jack Russell) and headed through the plum trees directly across the road from their home towards Monteton. Pierre said there is no problem walking through the orchards, the dogs knew the way and they were excited to go along with us. We walked through the orchards, to a small road that led into town. The Romanesque church was open and in wonderful shape and the views from the town were spectacular. We learned that there is a jazz camp in Monteton every summer; perhaps something Phil should consider and I could come back for more lessons….

Elouk would sometimes run with me
Elouk and Joy
So beautiful, out of the mainstream
Oeufs is the plural of eggs and a word that I have such trouble saying – it always comes out the eyes (les yeux) and they are for sale (“AV”) down the block

After our walk Pierre prepared our absolute favorite hors d’oeuvres from the trip so far. It’s the simplest thing and I can wait to make it at home. Good quality crusty bread, soft spreadable cheese (he uses Paysan Breton Le Fromage Fouette – Madame Loik – Nature au Sel de Guerande) topped with smoked trout. I will figure out what the equivalent of the cheese is in the US and rest assured it will become a regular for company at our house. We had it with a glass of local white wine, sat outside and watched the sunset. The sun sets really late, at least it’s late to us — around 9PM.

Crusty bread, spreadable cheese and smoked trout – please pass me one!

Pierre said he’s usually the cook and having Isabelle gone wasn’t really a culinary problem. He seemed very comfortable in the kitchen. The three of us had dinner on the patio; I think the kids ate inside watching a video. We had duck and roasted potatoes, switched to a local red wine and had fruit for dessert.

The schedule for my five school days was basically the same each day. I would get up a little before seven and run 3 or 4 miles, come back and shower, have a very traditional French breakfast of bread, jam butter and tea or coffee, and start lessons by 9AM. Pierre was usually gone when I got back from running taking his youngest to school, Phil was sitting at the table drinking coffee and watching a download of the prior day’s Padres game. Pierre and I would work at the dining table and Phil would go into our room or out on the patio and play guitar.

We’d have lunch sometime after noon and then Phil and I would go off to explore the area in the afternoon. When Pierre didn’t have another lesson in the afternoon he’d go with us. Pierre teaches people who live in the area French as well as his immersion students; there are a lot of British people who have settled here. This week was a little challenging for Pierre with Isabelle away. He had to pick up the Vivien from school. We’d regroup after six, probably closer to seven, for an aperitif and hors d’oeuvres and dinner would follow. Some nights we’d watch a video or just go straight to sleep.

The Curriculum

I’m certain Pierre was sizing up my skills in French to decide what to work on. It was Day 1 that I realized I wasn’t going to walk out of here after 5 days and be fluent. That bubble had burst. In French there are a ton of words that they use all the time that buy them time to think or connect thoughts together or to simply confuse foreigners who are trying to learn the language. These are a particular problem with understanding spoken French. We do it in English too, but it’s natural for us. We spent almost three hours going over when and how to use these phrases – “conservation fillers” – there’s a million of them, things like “by the way”, “so”, “rather”, “anyway”, etc. I think flash cards are definitely in order. Pierre also taught me a French card game, Tarot, that uses a special deck of cards. The plan was for us to play one night with Loeiz. Most days I had homework to reinforce what we had worked on earlier in the day.

My classroom

The second day of class was the most painful. We worked on pronunciation. Three years of French in High School, three years in College and a few years of lessons and I’m awful. It’s painful for my own ears to hear it. AND, I don’t think I was ever formally taught the rules of pronunciation. There are so many combinations of letters that end up being the exact same sound – it can be, it is very frustrating. There is also a list of things that English speakers really have a hard time with. I am no exception. While the day was very frustrating, really frustrating I realized that 1) this was going to take continued work and 2) I’m not having trouble with things that other English speakers don’t also have trouble with. No homework tonight, I was just exhausted and my head was spinning.

My lessons

I rebounded on day three. It was a heavy grammar day; I always was a “Grammar Geek“.  Pierre did the best job of explaining pronominal verbs to me of all the instructors I have ever had. We didn’t get completely through the topic in one day but the fog around them was starting to clear. He also did a review of direct object pronouns, indirect object pronouns and disjunctive stress pronouns. I hate to admit it but I do like doing the grammar work. It was a good day.

On Thursday, we worked on the indirect object pronouns “en” and “y”, reviewed and finished up pronominal verbs and reviewed the full chart of “temps simple” and “temps compose”.

My homework

And on Friday, we reviewed a potpourri of topics including things like the verb manquer (to miss), expressions with “Ça”, causative constructions using faire, when to use si or que, qui and que and finally we stuck our toes into the subjunctive waters.

While I didn’t find the silver bullet for becoming fluent, the week re-energized me to get back to formal lessons with an emphasis on getting a handle on the rules around pronunciation. I am so very glad I had the opportunity to do this and I look forward to doing it again and again.

Meals – 3 Squares Each Day

Included in my class fee was three meals a day. Breakfast was always the same – a simple French breakfast of bread, butter, jam and coffee or tea.  Pierre prepared lunch after lessons. On a few afternoons we saw one or both of the boys, because the school schedule was a little wacky with half days (a lot of teachers were on extended field trips like Isabelle so the kids who remained were let out early) this week.   It was a brief sighting; as long as it took to fill a plate and finish it.

Among the notable lunches was a delicious thin quiche like tart with an amazingly fresh mixed salad with red, red tomatoes and mild goat cheese.

Quiche and

Pierre is originally from Bretagne and his parents still live there. His mother makes this most wonderful dish called Pain de Poisson which translates to Fish Loaf. When I first heard that this is what was for lunch I was concerned on two fronts 1) would Phil like it? and 2) would I like it? Pierre’s mother made it, froze it, gave it to Pierre and he heated it and served it for lunch. It was so amazingly good that I looked up the recipe. There’s no bread in it – the name “Pain” describes the loaf shape not an ingredient. The ingredients are fish, eggs, cream, tomato sauce, gruyere, salt and pepper. You basically poach the fish, let it cool, put all the ingredients in a food processer and give it a swirl, put the “batter” into a buttered loaf pan and cook it for 45 minutes at 150 degrees Celsius (350 Fahrenheit) and what comes out of the oven is just delicious. We loved it so much that I forgot to take a photo and by the time I realized it there was none left. Pierre made it two times during the week because we raved about it. Here’s what’s even more amazing. Many of you know that mayonnaise is basically on “the list”; a small amount is acceptable in tuna salad but that is the only acceptable use for mayonnaise. The Pain de Poisson was served with homemade mayonnaise (we have chickens so eggs seem plentiful). The mayo was also terrific, with a great Dijon and olive oil flavor.   A simple carrot salad (grated carrots) with vinaigrette was the perfect accompaniment.   The second time we had this, Pierre also steamed some artichokes from the garden. Often we’d have radishes from the garden. They were super spicy; he explained that this happened because the week before we arrived they were in Greece and the garden hadn’t been watered. The lack of water ups the spiciness.

Pain de Poisson – the picture doesn’t do it justice – Simply delicious

Each evening we had an aperitif of a local white wine and some hors d’oeuvres. The trout was the winner and repeated multiple times, but we also had house cured black olives, and foie gras.

Dinners were varied and quite good. On Monday night (and again Tuesday for lunch) we had a traditional Brittany favorite, the galette. The batter for the galette is made with buckwheat. Pierre is quite accomplished at making these; he even has a special cooker/appliance.

There is a gadget to do just about everything in the kitchen

Our galettes were stuffed with ham and cheese (many cheeses including a few stinky ones (on the list)) and a egg. The egg was inside the pancake and cooks up like a fried egg. Phil had a galette in the new French café in San Diego and they put the fried egg on top of the galette, this was actually cooked right in the galette! These were so delicious that I can’t wait to have one again when we’re in Brittany towards the end of trip. Pierre served them with a green salad. This was the first time I ate a ham and cheese galette; I’ve had crepes before. This will not be the last.

Galettes for dinner…
…galettes for lunch!

Another night we had oven baked fish, spicy broccoli and new potatoes. The fish was cooked to perfection. I think it was Cabillaud which I think is cod. The new potatoes were done in the pressure cooker and were buttery on their own. The broccoli was overcooked for our taste but still very flavorful and I’m not sure what made it spicy. I was so happy to have the vegetable. Another night we had a delicious, roasted chicken with potatoes. The skin was super crispy and the meat was falling off the bones and both the white and dark meat was moist. There wasn’t a speck of chicken leftover.

Roasted chicken and potatoes – classic French food

Each night we usually switched to a local red wine with dinner. We’d have some cheese after the main course and before dessert. Dessert would be either fruit or a confection. One night Phil and I brought home eclairs from our adventure: 3 chocolate, 1 café and 1 green tea with strawberries.

Our last night we had French homemade pizza. Very thin crust, at least 4 cheeses and ham.   Some of those cheeses were “on the list”; Phil just enjoyed the pizza.  Isabelle was home, it was nice for all of us to get to spend a little time with her.

Pierre prepares pizza

After School Activities

Monday afternoon we didn’t do anything outside of the house – it was a little cold and we were tired so Phil practiced and I did homework. Tuesday afternoon after confirming how bad my pronounciation is we took a short road trip. We never went more than 30 kilometers from the house any day. This day we went for a hike and saw a windmill.

No French Don Quixote spotted

We walked through fruit and nut trees and just soaked up the day. We did see a number of signs that said “Attention Palombiere” and after consulting a number of translation apps we had no idea what we needed to be aware of.

Frequent fall of pigeons!

The next day we drove to Allemans-du-Dropt. Here we saw a church with the most amazing paintings on the walls – painted frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries.   That was very cool.

St. Michael slaying the dragon

We also traveled to Eymet which Pierre tells us is the most “British” town around – the town is full of Englanders. We can confirm that the woman in the patisserie seemed to be more comfortable speaking English to us than French.   This town was so quaint. Eymet is in the Périgord region of France, where the foie gras and my troglodyte gite I mentioned earlier come from. I didn’t realize we would be so close when planning the trip. The town or bastide was founded in 1270 by Alphonse de Poitiers the brother of Louis IX of France. It’s very well preserved and so “cute”.   This is where we picked up the éclairs for dessert.

Us in Eymet with the 13th century chateau behind us

We also took a short walk around about 1/3 of the lake at Soumensac where we crossed from Lot et Garonne into Dordogne and back again.

A walk around the lake

We visited Duras, there we toured the Chateau de Duras. It was originally built in the 12th century and turned into a fortress in the 14th century. It became a superb country mansion during the 17th century and then, uh oh, it was the 18th century and it was plundered and partially destroyed during the French Revolution (1798) and fell into disrepair.   In the 1960s the village purchased it and have been renovating it every since. We did an audio tour of the property in English and really enjoyed it. We also stopped in the Chateau du Vin, did a little tasting and picked up a couple of very reasonably priced wines for near term consumption.

A one hour audio tour – absolutely worth the time

We returned to Monteton to meet Pierre for another walk in the countryside. This time we drove to the starting point. Elouk and Joy were elated to come with us. They hopped into the trunk of the car, for the short ride by car. It was a little disconcerting for Phil and me to have them in the trunk, I felt like a Mob Boss kidnapping the dogs. They didn’t seem the least bit bothered by it. The dogs and people enjoyed the walk. Pierre had explained to us the “Palombiere” warning signs we saw was to warn people that there could be hunters shooting birds and to be careful to not get shot and not get hit by falling birds. Shooting pigeons seems to be quite the sport in this area of France. He showed us the elaborate hunting “shacks” that are constructed. Pierre explained that a group of men will often go hunting for days if not weeks. It appears to be a bonding and drinking opportunity for them.

It’s party time

In addition to explaining the hunting practices of French men he also took us by a ruin of an old church that the community paid and worked (volunteered hours) to save – it was critical that they reinforced the roof line after the roof fell in – otherwise the walls would have crumbled as well.

We found it!

We did get in a quick game of Tarot. That was fun. Maybe I’ll find some folks back in the US who are familiar with the game. Two nights we watched movies. The first night was an American Film with French subtitles, “O Brother Where For Art Thou” with George Cluny. Phil and Pierre liked it. I picked the second film, a French Film, “Ce qui nous lie (Back to Burgundy)” with English subtitles. It was sappy and predictable and I loved it and Phil said it “held his attention”. I listened carefully for all the conversation fillers we had studied earlier in the week, they are everywhere in spoken French.

On our last full day I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done before, or at least not in 40 years. Pierre offered to let us do some laundry which we quickly and thankfully accepted. We line dried our clothes. I remember my mother hanging laundry out to dry as a child; I don’t remember every having done it myself.

Pretty spectacular view for hanging laundry

Before our pizza dinner on our last night, Pierre and Loiez had guitar lessons. Their teacher, Javier is originally from Mexico and has a French girlfriend.  He came to the house to give the lessons.  Phil listened while I was writing; I heard nothing. When the lessons were over, Pierre and Isabelle asked Javier to stay for an aperitif. Phil and Javier played together a little. Enjoy!

Our week was over so fast, before I knew it we were on the road to the Cévennes. We would be spending five nights at our friends, Angelique and Dominique’s gite.  It’s been at least 10 years since we’ve seen them.

Wishing I had another week of lessons but looking forward to seeing Angelique and Dominique


4 thoughts on “Sad to Say – But There Is No Silver Bullet When Learning French

  1. Pronominal verbs? Indirect object pronouns? You go, girl! I have no idea what those are but am very impressed to know someone who does.

    1. We all have our little secrets…Thanks for keeping up with our travels. It’s great to know someone out there is reading this 🙂

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